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Class Action Challenges Treatment of Florida's "Sexual Predator" Civil Detainees

by David M. Reutter

A federal class action has been filed in the Federal District Court in Ft. Myers by eight residents of the Florida Civil Commitment Center (FCCC), seeking to enforce their rights to mental health services and treatment under the United States Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act. FCCC is a state institution that indefinitely holds sex offenders who have completed their prison sentences, but purportedly require additional treatment to keep them from re-offending.

While it is deemed a civil treatment facility, FCCC is located inside the barbed wire fences of a former state prison in Arcadia, Florida. It is the only facility in Florida designated to house and provide treatment services for men confined under Florida's Sexually Violent Predator Act.

Florida Statute §§ 394-910-394.931 provides for Florida's Department of Children and Families (DCF) to involuntarily detain and civilly commit persons judicially determined to be a "sexually violent predator." To be confined under the Act, an individual must be found to have a mental abnormality or personality disorder that makes the person likely to engage in acts of sexual violence if not confined to a secure facility for long-term control, care, and treatment.

Once committed to the DCF's custody, an individual is entitled to a limited court hearing once a year to determine whether there is probable cause to believe the person's condition has so changed that it is safe for that person to be released. The court will not make such a finding until the person has completed FCCC's treatment program. Since that program was initiated over four years ago, not one resident has been permitted to successfully complete the treatment program to the point where DCF recommends discharge to the courts.

"Many residents are excluded from participating in treatment because their underlying mental illnesses and developmental disabilities are not being treated or addressed through adequate programming," stated attorney Kristen Cooley of Florida Institutional Legal Services. Plaintiffs Roger Canupp, Jacob Myers, and Lawrence McGee are unable to participate in any meaningful way in the treatment program because they suffer from Bipolar Disorder, Personality Disorder, Schizophrenia, Dementia, or are developmentally disabled.

FCCC's treatment program is administered by Liberty Behavioral Health Corporation (Liberty), a for-profit Pennsylvania corporation that contracts to provide mental health and substance abuse treatment through public and private sector programs. Liberty has a three-year contract to run FCCC that is worth $45,237,055.

The one and only treatment program available to FCCC residents has four stages: (1) reception and custody; (2) introduction to treatment-assessment and evaluation; (3) intermediate treatment-phases one through four; and (4) community treatment. There are no alternatives to the program.

Stages one through three require extensive reading and written work. Many FCCC residents do not have sufficient literacy to complete that work, and no literacy programs are available. The complaint charges that no guidelines exist for staff to determine who attends specialty groups (e.g., anger management, leisure education, human sexuality) that are part of the four phases of the third stage. Although family participation is important to discharge readiness, family members are not allowed to be involved in treatment and rehabilitation efforts. Moreover, the services provided are not individualized to address residents' individual needs. Despite Florida law providing for the offering, on a voluntary basis, of pharmaceuticals that may decrease sexual impulses, Liberty has refused that treatment to plaintiff Tywaun Jackson.

To conform to constitutional requirements, persons committed under the Act must receive treatment. Although there are over 420 residents at FCCC, the DCF has limited the number of participants in treatment to 150 residents. Liberty acknowledges the need for 21 additional clinical staff to effectively serve the residents currently participating in treatment.

Those 150 residents who are fortunate enough to participate in treatment have no chance for release and are serving a virtual life sentence. Because the final phase of Liberty's treatment program, community treatment, does not exist, residents cannot complete treatment as required by Florida courts for discharge. Jackson and resident Charles Durden are in the most advanced stage of treatment and await community treatment, so they are prevented from showing there has been a "change" in behavior.

The complaint also challenges FCCC's use of punitive confinement without providing a hearing or having a confinement order for a limited duration. When plaintiff Bruce Kramer refused to return to his housing assignment because he feared for his life, he was placed in punitive confinement from August 2003 until February 2004 when he accepted the demand to return to that assignment.

The lawsuit requests declatory judgment that the conduct, conditions, and treatment at FCCC is unconstitutional and injunctive relief to cure the deficiencies. The residents are represented by Kristen Cooley of Florida Institutional Legal Services and Peter Sleasman of Southern Legal Counsel. PLN will report future developments in this litigation. See: Canupp v. Liberty Behavioral Health Corporation, USDC, Middle District of Florida, Case No:2:04-cv-260

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Related legal case

Canupp v. Liberty Behavioral Health Corp.